“. . . all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. . . . . He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. . . . Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. . . . So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8)
I have from time to time been harsh on commentators . . . especially on those who bring modern interpretations and foreknowledge that the writers of the time may or may not have known. I find that more often when reading commentaries on Old Testament passages than New Testament; and heaped on that interpretations that come from a very obvious subset of Christian beliefs. So my first thought and response was that the interpretation given to the people gathered before the Water Gate MUST have been free from bias because it would have been just the Torah or the laws that the Lord God gave to the Hebrews after the exodus from Egypt. But then I thought, maybe I cannot and should not assume that! And I was sad.
Where and how might bias slip in? How do we prevent it from happening? Is it fair to scripture to read it with the lens of bias of the times? Anyone who reads anything brings their own experience to the reading. One hopes that the discernment of the Spirit inspires the reading, the understanding, and the interpretation. But that is not a given.
The sense in the book of Nehemiah was that the people who were gathered had not background or understanding of the text that was being read to them because they were so far removed from the faith life of their ancestors and forebearers. This was in essence new to them. So of course they needed guidance and interpretation. That is why I first assumed there would be no bias.
“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Verses 9 – 10)
I got to thinking though, and asked myself why were they weeping? So, I decided to consult some commentators. And as I thought, the weeping and sorrow was because they were made aware of the sins they had committed – unknowing sins because they had not heard the law. But sins nonetheless. So I had to wonder, did Ezra and Nehemiah, and the Levites, present the law in such a way that the people were “convicted” and “condemned” for their sins? Ie, bias? Or was it because (as one commentator said) they were tenderhearted to having erred?
And then I thought further, could it be universal that all new believers (whatever their faith traditions) weep and are tenderhearted seeing how they past steps have been missteps? I remember myself at a young age feeling sorrow and remorse that I had not lived a more accountable life. New faith does not always know grace . . . yet. That comes with time.
May you, beloved reader, come to new and renewed knowledge with joy and thankful – acknowledging your missteps but celebrating new understanding. Selah!